The Cleveland Indians gave their fans plenty of reasons to be excited this past summer. They improved their win total from a scant 69 wins in 2010 to an adequate 80 in 2011. That’s reason enough for excitement in looking forward. The Columbus Clippers, Cleveland’s Triple-A affiliate, have given Tribe brass plenty of reasons to be optimistic about the future, as well.
Cleveland’s 2011 campaign was marked with a number of players who made their Major League debuts after promotions from Columbus. From expected superstars in Lonnie Chisenhall and Jason Kipnis, to surprises like Ezequiel Carrera, the pipeline between the Clippers and Indians was quite active. From those players, and several others, Cleveland fans got to see the future appears to be paved with positive things. Even the players who Indians fans did not have the pleasure to see this season are soon to come in the next year and give promise as the back-to-back Triple-A champion Clippers. They have a talented bunch of players waiting and chomping at the bit to contribute to what the Indians hope will be a playoff contender next year and the following several, as well.
One man who has seen all of these players from Day 1 in Columbus is Clippers’ radio announcer Scott Leo. Leo, the voice of the Columbus airwaves for the past seven years, has seen enough to feel good about Indians’ winning potential in the short term. Leo also has his own blog, The Mitchell Report & Livin’ La Vida Leo, covering the Clippers.
Obviously, the two biggest names are Chisenhall and Kipnis. The future at third base and second base, respectively. The two are expected to become middle-of-the-order hitters whom the offense can revolve around. Both players had their ups and downs as rookies this past season, but each also gave glimpses as to what they are capable of. Leo doesn’t think Cleveland fans need to worry about either one going forward.
Chisenhall struggled a little more than Kipnis as a first-year player. Chisenhall, after a slow start, finished the year with seven home runs, 22 RBI and .255 batting average. He has shown enough that the Indians plan to make him the every day third baseman next year.
“With Lonnie, he had a honeymoon period where it took him time to figure out Major League pitching,” Leo said. “He was getting there toward the end of the season. He’ll hit the ground running in Major League camp next year, feeling like a Major League player and won’t have the added stress of competing for a job.”
Kipnis, after a late-July call up, got off to a torrid start before injuries derailed him in August. In all, he had seven home runs and 19 RBI in 150 at bats. Where Leo said Kipnis showed improvement in the fist half of the minor league season was with is glove. While everyone knows about the bat, Leo said glovework forced the Indians to finally make the promotion.
“In Triple-A, he hit from the beginning,” the voice of the Clippers said. “His biggest improvement has been defensively, with his conversion from outfield to second base.”
Leo noted a moment that he realized Kipnis had put it together defesively.
“A couple of months into the season, he made difficult plays on back-to-back days,” he said. “At that point he was defesively ready for Cleveland.”
Along with the two budding superstars, a surprise to the Indians was Carrera. The centerfielder got the call to the big leagues because of injuries to Grady Sizemore and Shin-Soo Choo. Carrera, an unknown when he received his May promotion had a game-winning suicide squeeze bunt in his first Major League at bat. He ended up stabilizing an injury-plagued outfield, batting .243 with 10 steals. While not much was expected of him upon his call up, Leo said he would not be shocked to see Carrera stick with the Tribe long-term and have a solid career.
“He has the potential to be and every day Major Leaguer down the road,” Leo said. “He’s a sparkplug, who can bunt for a hit and is a threat to steal. He covers a lot of ground in the outfield. He has the potential to help the Indians long-term.”
Along with the Indians who made rookie impacts in 2011, Leo said there are others on the horizon for fans to be excited about. One of those is pitcher Cory Burns, who projects as a possible starter.
“We saw him in the late innings when he was promoted to Columbus late in the season,” Leo said. “He’s been impressive so far in the Arizona Fall League.”
Another player Tribe fans may not have heard of is shorstop Juan Diaz, who also received a late-season promotion to Columbus. He will have a hard time cracking the big league roster with Asdrubal Cabrera and Kipnis up the middle, but Leo said Diaz will be a hard guy for Indians management to ignore.
One final guy, whom Indians fans may remember, is former first round pick Beau Mills. With Matt LaPorta struggling and likely losing his grasp on the Tribe first base job, Mills could be an option going into spring training. In 35 games last year with Columbus, the 2007 first round selection hit seven home runs and collected 18 RBI. He finally showed the pop the Cleveland front office has longed for.
“Beau Mills made significant strides in Triple-A last season,” Leo said. “The Clippers counted on him heavily down the stretch and in the playoffs.”
So, the Indians future does look bright with a number of strong call ups this past season and more to come very soon.
“It will be interesting to see how the offseason unfolds with trades and free agent signings,” Leo said. “There are a lot of good, young players already in place. It really is the best part of my job to not only see the players go to the Major League, but the number of them in Columbus who get to go.”
Photo: Columbus Dispatch